Bluegill Vs Sunfish: Key Differences & Correct Terminology

Bluegill vs Sunfish Feature image

Anglers often wonder if bluegill and sunfish are the same things – well the truth is, a bluegill is a type of sunfish.

There’s a lot of confusion about this – and about bluegill in general – which we aim to clarify in this article.

Growing up, we called them bluegill, sunfish, bream, spot, or yellow belly or another name for bluegill. Nobody ever corrected us, so we used whatever name we felt like using that day.

A particularly bright one might be called a sunfish, while one with more of a blue-green color we called bream. In reality, though, we were catching the exact sunfish species all the time: the bluegill.

They are a small but tasty fish that are usually small, with even the record bluegill weighing in at just over 4lbs.

Quick summary: Bluegill are a type of sunfish, which are a family of small freshwater fish not to be confused with the Ocean Sunfish (also known as Mola Mola or Common Mola) which is a giant saltwater fish. Bluegill are a relatively small (average of 8 inches in length) freshwater fish, blue-green in color with a pronounced dark spot just behind their gills. Ocean sunfish, on the other hand, can weigh more than 2000lbs and are up to 10ft in length.

Bluegill vs Sunfish: Are they the same?

So, are bluegill and sunfish the same? Well, yes and no. All bluegill are sunfish, but not all sunfish are bluegills. How is this possible? Well bluegill, as well as many other fish species, belong in the same genus, all of which are part of the sunfish family.

So what is a Sunfish?

The scientific name for the sunfish family is Centrarchidae, and this family includes many sunfish species including rock bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, perch, crappie (see here for the key differences between crappie and bluegill), and the fish we commonly call bluegill.

Sunfish are members of the genus Lepomis which means scale covered. These fish are classified according to physical characteristics and habitat. All members of the sunfish family are freshwater fish. They have a double dorsal fin and a sharp anal fin with three to eight spiny ribs. In almost all species, the dorsal fins are fused with the larger one behind the smaller front fin.

Species in this genus include Lepomis punctatus-spotted sunfish, and Lepomis micropterus- bass including largemouth bass and striped bass.

These fish reproduce annually, and the spawning season occurs when water temperatures warm above 50°. This commonly occurs between April and August in most parts of the country.

What is a Bluegill?

Bluegills are so gluttonous that they sometimes eat their own eggs.

A bluegill, then, is a member of the sunfish family. The scientific name for blue gill is Lepomis macrochirus which translates to scale-covered large hand. One can assume that this term refers to the size and shape of the adult bluegill.

Like most sunfish, bluegill have a dark green or brown appearance. In some adult males there are deep green or dark brown vertical lines appearing on the body.

Sunfish are omnivores, and bluegills tend to eat just about anything you can put on a small fishing hook. (see here for our article on how to catch bluegill). They are gluttonous and will not only eat water insects, worms, phytoplankton, and algae, but they will actually eat their own eggs from time to time during spawning time.

As well as bait and lures, it is also fun to target bluegill on fly tackle.

See also:

How do you identify a bluegill?

This common fish is easily recognizable by looking at some intermediate characteristics. Like many other members of the sunfish species, bluegill have a round, flat appearance with a pronounced dorsal fin. The most common mark to identify a bluegill is a dark spot on the gill flap. Besides this black gill cover, the bluegill has a blue shade on the face. This blue coloration can vary from turquoise markings to a deep purple tone.

Young bluegills will have dark spots on their gill covers and a light yellow tone along their breast. Adult breeding males have a bright yellow breast. The fused double dorsal fin is elongated and has eight to thirteen spiky bones located from behind the head to just before the tail. The dorsal coloration is consistent with the fish’s coloring and is light green or light gray. In all cases, the dark blue or black ear flap is the easiest way to identify a bluegill.

So what is a Bream/Brim?

Bream, or brim, is essentially just a generic term for any other sunfish that is not a bass or bluegill. Because so many of the other sunfish species look so much alike, anglers don’t discern between bream vs sunfish vs bluegill. Most fishers will correctly name a bluegill, but pretty much everything else is just called a sunfish or bream, depending on what part of the country you are in.

Why the confusion?

You can identify bluegill from all other sunfish species through its identifying marks.

The debate of bluegill vs sunfish has been going on for decades. Most sunfish species have a similar appearance to bluegill, with the exception of bass. Casual anglers can easily confuse bluegill with other sunfish, especially smaller bluegills that do not have the bright coloring of adults.

Because all of the freshwater species with similar characteristics fall into the sunfish family, it is easier to assign all the sunfish species one common name, be it bluegill, bream, or sunfish.

See also:

How do you identify the other sunfish species?

When comparing sunfish, difference comes down to appearance in most cases. Some of the most common species and their identifying marks are listed below.

Pumpkinseed sunfish: The pumpkinseed sunfish is a spotted sunfish with a reddish-orange shadow behind its black ear flap.

  • orange, green, yellow or bluish body-color
  • yellowish-orange breast and belly
  • speckles on the skin
  • may have vertical bars that are a faint green or blue

Longear sunfish: The longear sunfish is easily identified by its elongated ear flap.

  • smaller than other sunfish
  • body is olive green to brown
  • mature longear sunfish has horizontal blue stripes on face and jaw
  • black gill flap spot edged in white

Dollar sunfish: Small sunfish with horizontal rows of light blue or white spots covering its sides.

  • light green to gray appearance
  • black gill covering is edged in light green
  • forward dorsal fin has an orange coloration
  • only found in the southernmost parts of Alabama

Redear sunfish: The redear sunfish is named for its bright red ear covering.

  • nicknamed shellcracker because of its strong jaws
  • football shaped
  • bright red ear flap
  • green or brown with a few darker spots
  • light gray tail and fins

Orange spotted sunfish: The orange-spotted sunfish is named the beautiful reddish-orange spots that cover its light-colored body.

  • light gray, bluish body color
  • small size
  • long spiky dorsal fin with orange tips
  • silver edging on dark ear flap

Redbreast sunfish– As the name implies, the redbreast sunfish has a red breast and belly.

  • very long, narrow black ear flap
  • yellowish-orange fins
  • red eye
  • large, thick fish

Green sunfish-This invasive species reproduces well and can quickly overtake a small pond or lake because this fish feeds on hatchling fish and fish eggs.

  • greenish coloring
  • rounded rear dorsal fin
  • black splotches along rear dorsal and anal fins
  • horizontal blue lines on face

Catching Bluegill


Final thoughts on sunfish vs bluegill

All bluegill fall into the sunfish family, but not all sunfish are bluegills.

To answer the debate bluegill vs sunfish, we must know a little bit about scientific classification and realize that all bluegill fall into the sunfish family, but not all sunfish are bluegills. The term sunfish includes many different fish species, including large mouth bass. Scientifically speaking, sunfish are freshwater fish with a fused, double dorsal fin. There are several species though and there are differences between green sunfish and bluegill, just as there are differences between bass and perch.

Knowing how to identify these freshwater fish by inspecting their earflap or pectoral fin makes you look like an angling expert. So the next time you are out catching sunfish and your buddy asks what you caught, don’t say bluegill, bream, or regular sunfish. Go into detail and tell him which type of sunfish you caught. Be it a green sunfish, a pumpkinseed sunfish, or a sun perch, each of these fish is as individual as you and I.

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Teresa Taylor is a keen kayak fisher and lover of all types of fishing. She writes about a range of fish species for Tackle Village and reviews lures and gear.
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